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Ashes and snow

February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday, and snow is falling again. We drive the twelve miles or so to church through a steady white drizzle.

Highland cattle huddle like dirty haystacks, snowy backs to the wind. A pheasant picks his way across a field of stubble, his rich bronze feathers the only colour in a landscape leached of pigment. Every black branch in a wood is sketched in white. The details of farmhouse, hedges, walls have been rubbed away, re-drawn as mere pencil scribbles on a white page, like the first outlines of a new painting., 13.2.13

In church, the priest smears our foreheads with a cross of black ashes made from the burning of last year’s Palm Sunday palms, saying to each of us,
‘Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return.’
I expect the ash to feel warm, like the chrism oil of confirmation, but it is cold. Cold as death.

The flowers have been removed from the church. There is no music in the service. Afterwards, we emerge sooty-headed into the still falling snow.

The feeling in the church was not one of mourning, however, but of cleansing. Cleansing ashes: a rich austerity. This morning I read in a prayer book that the word ‘Lent’ derives from the Old English word for springtime. This is a season of new beginnings. After the ashes of our old ways lie cold, we have the chance to kindle a new resolve and hope, culminating in the fulfilment of Easter.

‘Now, now – it is the Lord who speaks –
come back to me with all your heart’.

Back home again, I let the dogs out into the newly white world. We walk past the cherry tree beside the house. It is starting to droop a little under the weight of snow, but its frail looking branches are thick with buds of a warm and lively pink., 13.2.13-2

You might like ‘A rose-tinted Sunday’.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2013 2:24 pm

    Blessings to you during this season of Lent!

  2. February 13, 2013 3:09 pm

    As always, a beautiful depiction of daily life back home. Thanks!

    • February 13, 2013 7:45 pm

      Does it still feel like like home? I am happy to keep supplying you with descriptions as best I can!

  3. February 13, 2013 3:31 pm

    Such a beautiful post.

    I love the landscape of the first paragraph and your early Lenten thoughts, and the photos are glorious as well. I wish Aberdeen had snow (and pink blossoms) like that right now too! We have sleet and snowdrops pushing up in the kirk yard. At least the snowdrops are nice.

    • February 13, 2013 7:47 pm

      Ah, the snowdrops feel like an annual miracle, don’t they? I never noticed what a wonderful scent they have, too, until my wee boy pointed it out to me. His nose is nearer the ground than mine. 🙂

  4. February 13, 2013 7:38 pm

    I love your description of the snowy landscape, DB. ” The details of farmhouse, hedges, walls have been rubbed away, re-drawn as mere pencil scribbles on a white page, like the first outlines of a new painting” – exquisite.

    Coming from a Nonconformist background I well remember my first experience of the symbolism of Ash Wednesday and the impact of the full keeping of Lent, Sadly I wasn’t able to get to church today and regret this, but Lent will be kept nonetheless.

    • February 13, 2013 7:55 pm

      Thank you. I’ve always tried to keep Lent to some extent – even in my most agnostic periods! – but somehow had never been to an Ash Wednesday service before. I am glad I went; it was a good beginning. I can understand that you must regret having had to miss it, even though you will keep it in your heart.

  5. Caroline Waterlow permalink
    February 13, 2013 8:25 pm

    Love your blogs. Can’t remember how I first came across it. And theDancing Beasties appealed. Maybe because I draw dance in people, animals and birds! Loved your opening description today and the photo looking as if it came out of an old box of treasured memories. Only a flurry of snow here, as I drove over the Severn Bridge into Wales. I too found reference this year to Lent meaning beginning of spring – lengthening of the days of spring. References found in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. The reference reference came from Ronald Hutton’s book ‘The Stations of the Sun’ Years ago, during the sermon for the first Sunday in Lent, the priest ( sorry, I am of catholic stock!, but rather ‘lapsed’ these days) suggested that after mass we should go out and look for the first signs of spring, for this is a time of beginnings, and not one of long faces because we have ‘given up ‘ something for Lent. Best wishes Caroline Sent from my iPad

    • February 13, 2013 11:34 pm

      Thank you for visiting Dancing Beastie, Caroline. I am interested in the idea that the word Lent refers specifically to the lengthening of the days: it suggests that ‘Lent’ and ‘lencten’ (its Old English origin) come from the same root as our modern word ‘lengthen’. I had never made the connection before, despite being a bit of an amateur philology geek!

      Our service today had readings saying exactly what you remember your priest saying: there should be no attention-grabbing long faces in this season of renewal.

  6. Caroline Waterlow permalink
    February 13, 2013 8:51 pm

    It’s me again, I have just found the blog you wrote last year. And find that you are sharing the catholic liturgy with your husband, I got the wrong end of the stick somewhere along the line, maybe because in a recent blog you said something about your calvinistic roots or similar ( I am very new to your blogs). My mother was brought up as a Baptist then Methodist finally as a member of the Congregationalist Church – my grandfather was church organist. Every year he and his choir did Stainers Crucifixion. My mother was increasingly drawn to the catholic church, and much to the horror of the rest of the family she ‘converted’ in her twenties. But, getting to your question in2012 Ash Wednesday she too lamented the lack of singing and enthusiasm. And sad that happy clappy singing seems all too prevelant. Luckily my sons went to a musical catholic school, wonderful music , wonderful singing, a joy to listen to. Best wishes Caroline Sent from my iPad

    • February 13, 2013 11:35 pm

      Despite the music, I did finally convert to Catholicism last autumn! They got me in the end. 🙂

  7. February 13, 2013 10:02 pm

    We have just been through a blizzard here in New England, so the blossoms give us hope. e enjoy your photos and your writing. Thank you.

    • February 13, 2013 11:37 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Your blizzards looked epic – we heard about them on the news – and make our few inches of snow look very lightweight! Glad you came through safely.

  8. February 14, 2013 3:16 am

    Elegant descriptions of environment and emotion.

  9. Jo Woolf permalink
    February 14, 2013 11:13 am



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